Cameron's gang war 'long overdue'

2011-08-16 11:01
London - For the communities and youth workers facing the daily horror of gang violence on England's streets, Prime Minister David Cameron's vow to tackle the problem following last week's riots is long overdue.

Cameron has declared "all-out war" on gangs, which he blamed for fuelling four nights of frenzied looting and said they were "a major criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country".

He has hired US "supercop" Bill Bratton to advise on tackling street gangs and has rolled out the use of court injunctions to stop gangs wearing colours of allegiance, congregating in certain places and using dangerous dogs as weapons.

Cameron also admitted that "social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our faces", and vowed to redouble efforts to tackle broken families, welfare dependence and educational failure.

But to those living and working with the problem, many question why it has taken so long for the government to notice - during which time gangs are getting more and more violent, and their members younger and younger.

Sheldon Thomas, an ex-gang member who runs a mentoring programme in London, supports Cameron's assertion that British society is "broken".


"People like me have been saying this for decades," he said, adding: "People are angry, people are frustrated. There are no jobs, there is no aspiration."

He also accused Cameron of only acting on gangs now because shocking images of youths rampaging through relatively wealthy areas of London last week caused a national outcry, when successive governments failed to respond in the same way to up to 800 gang-related murders in the past decade.

"Are we now a nation that values materialism - businesses and shops - more than the life of a 14-year-old kid who was chased down a road by several gang members who stabbed him 17 times for his BlackBerry?" he asked angrily.

Youth worker Patrick Regan, who has been advising Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on the recent violence, agrees that the government has failed to address the issue, although he is more hopeful that ministers can help.

"People have been warning for years that something like this could happen. I'm hoping there will be a long-term view of things, that we won't paper over the cracks," he said.

Regan, the chief executive of youth charity XLP, cautioned however against any simplistic definition of gangs, and also warned that it was unlikely that organised criminal groups were entirely responsible for last week's riots.

Gang members stayed home

"It wasn't all young people, and some were just purely opportunistic. Young people who just got wrapped up in it, crowd dynamics took over," he said.

He said he had spoken to his local authority who reported that known gang members had actually stayed home during the riots, "because they knew if they went out they'd get targeted by police".

One of the main pieces of research on British gangs, a 2009 report by the respected Centre for Social Justice think tank, found that 170 gangs operated in London, although Thomas puts the number at 260, with 15 000 individual members.

Another 170 operate in the Scottish city of Glasgow, where police and local authorities claim to have cut violent offending among gang members by almost 50% in two years through a targeted community initiative.

Community workers are calling for more resources for proven mentoring and intervention schemes, and the US supercop, Bratton, warned this weekend that a police crackdown alone would not solve Britain's gang problems.

"You can’t just arrest your way out of the problem. It’s going to require a lot of intervention and prevention strategies and techniques," he said.

Substitute families

Although in the past gangs used to be defined by ethnicity, most are now about territory - the Pembury Boys take their name from the Pembury housing estate in Hackney, east London, for example - and they often control drugs within that.

Although they range from criminal organisations to groups of disaffected teenagers, a recent government report found that people join them for protection, a sense of belonging and status as well as a way of making money.

Gavin McKenna, aged 21, was in a gang in Newham in east London before he turned his life around. Although he carried a knife and robbed people, he said he and his friends weren't an organised group, "we were just trying to survive".

He grew up with an abusive father who left when he was young, had little money and his gang represented both a way of earning cash and a substitute family - a story that is played out over and over among Britain's gang members.

McKenna says he has little faith in the government's new drive against gangs.

"I think they're going to patch it over, like they always do," he said, adding: "They don't care about us."

Read more on:    david cameron  |  nick clegg  |  uk riots

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